The Plaza in Los Angeles, circa 1880 by Carleton Watkins / J. Paul Getty Museum
Tyler Green, the arts critic and reporter who writes Modern Art Notes (now on hiatus), has signed a deal to write a biography of photographer Carleton Watkins for UC Press. Watkins took the first extensive photos of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, on huge glass plates in the 1860s and '70s, and early photos of fledgling Los Angeles as well. Green calls him a titan of the field and the first important California artist, as well as "probably the most influential American artist of the 19th Century." Green explains his motivation for the book in a piece for Medium.com.
Over the last 15 years I’ve begun to understand how extraordinary an artist Watkins was, and the impact he had on the West and America. Most famously, his pictures of Yosemite motivated Congress and President Abraham Lincoln to set aside a parcel of land for the long-term enjoyment of the public, an idea that would become national parks and protected public lands. At Yosemite and in the work that followed over the next 30-plus years, Watkins steered American art away from the dewy, providentially inspired landscapes of Eastern painters toward a sciences-informed factuality. Watkins composed his landscapes so brilliantly that painters such as Albert Bierstadt bought his pictures, wrote him letters and traveled to meet him so that they might become better artists.
Watkins’ greatest subject was the American landscape. But like no other artist in our history up until that point (and for many years thereafter), Watkins’ work is rich with the paradox of how Americans have used the land. Yes, Watkins made remarkable pictures of scenic Western views up and down the the Sierra and the Pacific Coast, the work for which he remains best known. But Watkins’ interest in landscapes — both “natural” and more overtly man-impacted — reveals much about the second half of the 19th-century, when an urbanizing America becoming increasingly interested in the natural sciences, nature and wilderness even as the nation encouraged businessmen to build massive private wealth by raping the land.
In Watkins we see the timber industry mowing down the West’s forests and pushing denuded logs through riverside mills. We see mining operations stripping away the land and landowners moving rivers to where they would be most advantageous to the first generation of Big Agriculture, helping to create the idea that the desert West could be ‘reclaimed’ for farming. In Watkins’ pictures we don’t just see the land or see industry grow from a family affair to a corporate concern, we see how the romantic American landscape of the first half of the 19th-century was converted into a source of previously unimaginable private wealth. But that’s not all Watkins shows us: He gives image to (and helps further) then-emerging ideas in botany and geology, the history of California and the nation, architecture and even to current events. His art covers an uncommon range.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York currently has an exhibition up of 36 Yosemite pictures that Green says are taken mostly from albums of Watkins’ work at the Stanford University Libraries. Watkins lost all of his glass-plate negatives, business records, archives, and personal papers in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, and died penniless ten years later.